Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Taxi Anyone?

When my friend and housemate, Brendon, invited me to go shopping at the mall last Saturday, I was excited and quickly agreed. It was not so much the shopping that interested me but the chance to get my hair done.

Yep, I was desperate for a hair cut!

He, on the other hand, wanted a chance to talk ‘missions stuff’ and drink coffee. Now, how can I say no to that?!
    --That’s two of my favorite things ever!

There was just one catch; we’d have to take a taxi.

Keep in mind that the definition of Taxi in Jo’burg is definitely not same as the definition of a taxi in say... any other American city.

Apparently, it is something feared by many which explains his trepidation when asking me.

The conversation went something like this.

--“But if we go to the mall... we’ll have to take a taxi. You cool with that?”

--“Yes,” I asserted quickly, then added, “By taxi you mean the public transportation, Right?”

--“That’s right...” he hedged a bit then added, “They are not known for being very safe. They drive like psychos.”

--“Oh, that’s no problem. I’ll be ready in five,” I said matter-of-factly, and I meant it.

However before I left, I checked in with the pastors of CC Johannesburg, Chad and Heather Naaktgeboren, just to make sure that using local taxis was not breaking some kind of rule.

When I told them I was going to the mall in a taxi, they laughed nervously then snuck in a few sideways glances. Finally Chad spoke up. “You can take the taxi, if you like. But I’d only feel good about it if Brendon were there to protect you.”

I nodded in agreement. Then Heather chirped in, “Yeah. It’s not safe. Women are often the victims of robberies. They steal your phones... and your wallets.”

--“Oh... so it’s like in the Philippines,” I ventured. They nodded but then stopped.

--“No. It’s worse,” Chad began, “Here, it’s worse. I know some white South Africans that have never taken a taxi in their lives. They are too afraid.”

--“Yaa,” Heather added. “I’ve been here 7 years and I’ve never taken one.”

--“So... should I not go, then?” I asked quite sincerely. I didn’t want to make a cultural blunder.

--“No. But just know... if you don’t like it. We’ll be happy to come pick you up,” they offered kindly.

I laughed in response, but to be honest it made me wonder. Could it be all that different than the Tap-taps in the Philippines with the pick-pocket gangs? Could it be any scarier than the Matatus in Kenya who raced about at neck-break speeds?

It was time to find out. Plus, I love an adventure!

Before I go on, I should explain that Brendon is a white South African with more grit and grizzle than your average bloke. He lives on the CCJ property and has a heart for missions work. God willing, he’ll be preaching up a storm in South America soon.

As a local, Brendon knows his way about town and assures me that taxis are his preferred way of traveling the city.

So we were off.

As we walked to the intersection to catch the taxi, he explained some of the basic rules.

--“You must never jump the line. They don’t like that”, he began. “And make sure you line up from left to right.”

I nodded then repeated dutifully, “Never jump the line. Check. What else?”

--“Hum... oh. Yeah. They don’t like it when you talk really loud in the Taxi,” he explained. “You’ll find people talk in very low voices.”

I smiled. Then laughed. Yes, Americans are not known for being very quiet.

--“Okay. No loud conversations,” I agreed happily. “Anything else?”

--“Yes. One last thing...” he smirked, looking at my shoulder bag sideways, “You don’t have anything in that thing that can be easily lifted, do you?”

I smirked back, “No.”

“Then we’re set.”

As we continued to walk, I continued to pepper him with questions.

How do you know where the taxi is going? Where do they stop? Are they marked? Why do they drive so crazy? Why do people fear using them?

He answered my questions as they came, but it all stopped once we got to the intersection. Then he told me where to stand, and how to make the right hand signals.

--“When the taxi drives past, you have to hold up different fingers to tell him where you intend to go,” he tried to explain while pointing his index downward, palm facing inward. “This way he knows you only intend to go somewhere local.”

I mimicked his action but felt a bit silly doing it. But one quick glance around showed me that everyone was doing it too and I figured I should just go with the flow.  

--“How do you know which is a taxi?” I asked, more than a little confused. They all just looked like unmarked vans.

--“There’s a round sticker in the windshield,” he explained. “Can’t you see it?”

I looked and looked, but it didn’t seem very clear.

--“How long do you typically have to wait for a ride?” I continued to interrogate.

--“Depends. It’s fast... typically no more than 15 or 30 minutes.”

I smiled at his interpretation of ‘fast’ but didn’t comment. Time here is relative.

As we waited, unmarked vans slowed to get a better look at us. And some drivers even flashed hand signals back on their way by.

No one honked; no one hung out from an open door tapping on the roof of the van; and what is more, no one screamed out destinations or solicited riders.

It. was. all. so. very. sophisticated.

Meanwhile, the ever-growing crowd on the side of the road continued to wave different sets of fingers at the on-coming traffic in hopes of taking the next seat.

Vans passed. Fingers waved.

Several minutes ticked by this way, giving me ample time to learn the Finger Code.

“What is the finger code?” you ask.

Excellent question.

Here’s my best attempt at an explanation.

The Finger Code 101:
  • Right index finger pointing upward, hand facing inward = going downtown to Jo’burg.
  • Right index finger pointing downward, hand facing inward = going somewhere locally, (aka: before you reach downtown).
  • Four spread-out fingers pointing upward, with thumb tucked in = going to Fourways (a well-known intersection somewhere about town)
  • Right index finger pointing behind your right shoulder, elbow sharply bent = going to Randburg (a neighboring town or sub-burb, I’m not fully sure where).
  • Hand spread out flat, palm down, tottering from side to side in an uneasy motion = going to a township (aka: squatter camp or slum) and you might want to reconsider your destination. 

In time and after much finger waving, we found a van with two empty seats and crawled in the back. Hot and cramped explains it well. This is typical of all public transports, but there was something missing.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, so instead I took a deep breath and settled in for the ride.

The quintessential tour guide, Brendon pointed out sights along the road and eventually helped me take a few pictures of the taxi on his phone since I was NOT allowed to open my bag, and definitely NOT allowed to get my camera out.


He took advantage of this time to also snap off a few pictures of me. As we looked at them, we laughed and I offered to show them to the two young men sitting to my right. They looked at it more out of courtesy than interest, but it was fun interacting with them all the same.

Of the two young men, one was a good 4 inches taller than the other, but both had the same crooked teeth. In fact, their teeth were identically crooked meaning only one thing.

So I looked at them and asked, “Are you brothers?”

The one closest to me looked up in surprise, then nodded shyly. He kept looking to his brother for permission to speak but after waiting a long, uncertain minute and getting nothing, he finally decided to speak a single syllable in response.


--“You look alike,” I continued on with my widest smile. “Which of you is older?”

I already knew the answer --it was clearly the taller one-- but I had some time on my hands... and why not talk to them. Life’s more fun that way.

Once the older brother was identified, I teased the younger one by asking, “Is he a good older brother? Or is he a bully?” The younger smiled full-on at that point, showing off a new layer of crooked teeth in response.

--“Yaa. He is a good brother,” he chuckled.
              --Wow! I got more than a syllable. Success!

--“He never beats you up?” I continued to tease. He just laughed and shook his head in response.

--“Yaa, he seems like a good older brother,” I ventured. Then the conversation started to fade.

I could see he was definitely not used to talking to people like me, and I wondered why. Was it the fact that I was clearly this dorky older woman with stupid questions, or was it more?

It’s times like this that make me wonder just how my skin color is perceived around here. Some days, I think it’s nothing. Other days, I think it’s all there is.

One thing is for sure; Brendon and I were the only white people using any of the taxis that day. Despite this fact (or better yet, because of this fact), I felt very safe and secure.

Long story very short.

We arrived to our destination, shopped, then returned home on another taxi after a full day of hair-dos, coffee, and fun.

And only now as I write this all down, does it occur to me what was so vastly different about these taxis.

The silence.

Not once did I hear any hard-core punksters screaming their woes at mind-numbing decibels (as found in Kenya). Nor was I ever subjected to any rap bands blasting to the beat of blown-out sub-woofers (as experienced in the Philippines).

Yes, I would have to agree. In South Africa, silence is definitely key to riding the taxi.